At the end of this month, Christians around the world will be celebrating the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. It began, famously, with Martin Luther, an Augustinian Friar, beginning a dispute with the authorities of the Roman Catholic Church about theology. On 31st October 1517, Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of Wittemberg Cathedral, not knowing the consequence of his essentially theological dispute.
We live in an era when fame is highly desired. Some people count fame as getting large numbers of friends on social media, for others for being ‘in’ with the right crowd, others through the cult of celebrity, in sport or the performing arts. Martin Luther didn’t intend to become famous, and yet he changed the world, helping to usher in the modern era.
Martin Luther was born in 1483 in what is now central Germany but then was a separate principality called Saxony. His parents tried to give him a good education and hoped he would become a lawyer. Instead, when he was twenty-one he became a monk. He wanted to earn God’s love but was tormented by the sense that he could never be good enough. He punished himself mercilessly until finally a wise mentor sent him to study and teach Bible at the then new University of Wittenberg. Not long after he arrived there, he became incensed by the church saying, in effect, that if people bought a certain document—an indulgence—it would provide God’s forgiveness for their (or a loved one’s) sins. Being an academic monk, he wrote a list of ninety-five sentences to debate about the topic. That list, the Ninety-Five Theses, stirred up a hornet’s nest in the church and began the Reformation. He made them public on 31st October, 1517.
For challenging the church and refusing to back down, Luther was called before the Holy Roman emperor, Charles V, at a meeting in the imperial city of Worms. Asked to take back what he had written, he refused and was declared an outlaw. Anyone could have captured him and killed him or turned him in to authorities, in which case his death was likely. Fortunately, his own prince protected him, hiding him out in a castle where he began translating the Bible into German. In the process, he helped create the standard German language. Luther wrote many influential books, many of which are still valued today.
He created the Small Catechism to guide ordinary people in learning about God. He wrote hymns such as “A mighty fortress is our God.” He was a passionate, sometimes crudely mannered man, and in later life he wrote terrible, cruel things about the Jewish people, statements which have haunted his reputation, especially since the Second World War.
Yet Luther was a remarkable man, helping to create the modern notion of what it means to be an individual, not just an atom in a sea of molecules, and, of course, reviving and reforming the church. His own dispute, and the legacy of theological enquiry he began, has returned the whole church – Catholic and Protestant – to a greater reliance on the place of Scripture in the life of the Church. The Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation began a process of Catholic reform which has continued into the modern age, especially at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. The most famous civil rights leader of the 20th Century – Martin Luther King Jr (originally born Michael) – was named after him by his father who was inspired by his namesake’s courage and faith.
We who find our spiritual home in the Church of England owe an enormous debt to Luther. In many ways, Anglicanism has steered the sort of middle way which Luther wished to see develop. His legacy sets him apart from the more radical reformers who came after him. Perhaps the most significant debt we owe to Martin Luther is the place of the Bible in worship. Anglican liturgy is steeped in Scripture and we look to the Bible as our greatest source of authority, as the pre-eminent document that points us to Jesus Christ. Tradition is wonderful, novelty is often exciting. For Luther, though, the old and the new are measured by the yardstick of Scripture, the study of which enables us to discern a path through individual living, but as a way of seeking the will of God in the life of the Church.
Luther remains a man for all time. His legacy is, in my opinion, even more influential than the great scientific, psychological and political insights of Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, perhaps the three greatest thinkers of the modern era. None of them would have been able to do what they did without Martin Luther’s uneasy conscience, his laser-like theological insight, and his undoubted human courage. Above all, it is Luther’s insistence that faith in Jesus Christ is all we need to know the God of all things, that makes the Church what it is today.
Thanks be to God for this man for all seasons!
Don’t forget that we are celebrating Reformation 500 at St Mary’s at 11am on Sunday 29th October. We shall sing hymns written by Luther himself and the Choir will sing the Communion Setting by John Merbecke, the first post-reformation liturgical setting of the Mass in English.